Sunday, July 31, 2011

Post-mortem

So,in January of 2008, shortly after I had decided to make my grandmother the first gift I would ever give her, I got a call from the nursing home (where I was listed as her next of kin), that she had passed away in her sleep. If you've been reading this blog, you know I didn't really "know" her, but I felt she needed to have everything tied up in a respectful way, so I set about making plans to take care of the process of giving her a proper goodbye.

I told the home that I would come about two days later, and my husband agreed to stay home with the kids. I rented a car, and set off for Pennsylvania. My sister came along with me (thank God!), and made that pretty winter day so much better...

When we got to the home, I assume that my grandmother's lack of frequent visitors had made the staff doubt that we were coming, because all of her personal items had been cleared out, and no one knew where they were. I know my grandmother didn't have much, but you would think there had been a hairbrush, a birthday card... something? Her clothes (just a few items) remained in the closet, and we left them for the home to use, since no one else would be using them. It was lonely and sad in her room, but we felt peaceful about her passing. She had lived a solid 94 years, after all.


We had an appointment with the funeral director to meet us there that afternoon. (She had no final wishes that we knew of.) When he arrived with my grandmother's ashes, we were seated on a couch next to a coffee table in the lobby. After handing us the ashes, he knelt down next to the table, and we both stiffened, thinking he was going to pray with us... Keep in mind that we didn't really know how to feel about this, and it was all just a procedure pretty much, since she hasn't been able to hold a real conversation within the past 20 years or so...


Anyway, we caught each other's glance for a short second, and I emitted a small snort...

It's a shame how my sister can make me laugh outta nowhere. Apparently, he just needed to kneel down to fill out the receipt. There wasn't enough room on the couch.

My mother has always told me that death is a part of life. I get that. It is also part of business. I try not to obsess when a client dies, but I really feel a connection, and it can be is hard to break that connection, even when our only reason for working together was a garment.

Years ago, when I was just starting to sew for people I had never met, I had a wonderful professional clown client named Paula. She was a very proud and vocal breast cancer survivor, who loved her job, and wanted her clothes to fit her well, following a mastectomy. I created new costumes for her, altered some clothes, and really developed a bond so close, it felt like we were related. She brought her mother along to one appointment just to meet me. I loved hearing her explain her tricks, and the features her costumes needed to accommodate them, about her love for kids and their birthday parties... she was just a joy. Her husband called to say she wasn't well when she was due to pick up some shirts, and a few months later, she never came, nor called. Her cell phone # had been disconnected. Her ad was no longer in the local newspaper. I can only assume what happened.

A while after that, I had a great client named Lenny, who was an extremely stylish older gentleman, who didn't want to sacrifice his snazzy appearance after a medical condition which prevented him for wearing anything that was snug at the waist. He needed jumpsuits designed to look like separate pants and shirts, so his clothing could be suspended from the shoulders, uniquely customized to hide his medical apparatus, and a discreet alternative opening for toileting. He was a GREAT storyteller, and we established a quick and genuinely tender rapport. He had been a neglectful father to his kids and wife, and had lost contact. I'll bet if they knew the man I knew, he would have been forgiven. As time passed, it hurt to see his wait for a kidney grow urgent, with no donors. Lenny, the stoic tough guy he was, called me one day, in a severely weakened state to say that we couldn't work on a new project, but he would love a visit from me when he got just a bit stronger. He trailed off at the end of that conversation. I knew what he was really calling to say, but couldn't find the words. He was such a sweet guy.

More recently, a client named Lisa who had undergone a complete transformation after lap-band surgery, had me alter her mother's old wedding gown within an INCH OF ITS LIFE (seriously) for her own wedding. She was incredibly shapely, and her new life had taken her to places she had never traveled before. On one of those great excursions, she met a man who promised her a life of luxury and happiness. She was thrilled to be with this man, and was so excited for her wedding, that the feeling was contagious. Her "before" pictures were unbelievable... Some months after her wedding, I saw a newspaper article that chronicled her unfortunate death from an accidental(?) self-inflicted gunshot wound. Heartbreaking.

On occassion, I do a post-mortem of my projects, to see where I am, where I'm failing... where I'm succeeding... where I'm profitable... I see that almost all of my clients come to me after a failed retail experience, and that the vast majority are looking for better fit/quality. This is valuable information in a business like mine, since, I can see that this is a significantly more expensive choice for my clients, and in this economy, I think more people will be interested in learning how to sew/alter than ever. I would like to be poised for this shift, and ready to teach!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Left my comfort zone... and found myself... even more comfortable!


(From the set of the a promo photo shoot)

Having worked on a few TV and movie sets now, I have gotten used to the "hurry up and wait" schedule they usually follow. I have always done what was asked of me, then curled up in a corner with a book or my cell phone, trying to stay quiet and out of the way while awaiting my next task. I regret doing that while on the set of one particular movie I worked on, because I just watched and listened to the adorable little girl of two very famous parents (who was probably kinda bored) play with other crew members, and only accidentally fell into conversations with some VERY interesting and warm actors on the set, worried that I might be seen as trying to be too friendly, when the truth, I soon witnessed, was that they were COMPLETELY normal people, socially. Apparently, I was the weird one!

So on this particular photo shoot to promote a TV show (pictured above), I ventured outside of my comfort zone, put my book away, enjoyed and accepted EVERY morsel craft service offered me, and talked to the crew and cast... who were just FASCINATING.

The things I learned that day could fill a novel, quite literally. Makeup artists, stylists, and security people were full of great stories, information, and laughter. I would have done that job for free. I mean it!

Among the poeple I met that day, was one man who showed no particular sign of conceit or self-importance... he simply moved the limousine pictured every time the wheels or the car needed to change their angle. Just a guy joking around with the other guys, and complaining about the New York dating scene, and the materialism of women he had thought of dating. I rolled my eyes at their conversation, but joked around, making a true effort to be social. I assumed he was the hired limo driver for the shoot, and would have continued with that assumption, had I not asked him one HUGE question... "So how'd you get into the limo business?" (Meaning, as a driver. He wasn't a limo driver. At all.)

Well, the answer to that question was a story so worthwhile, I am amazed at how close I came to never hearing it. He answered my question with such a heartfelt story that he told with such passion, that I will bet he would have answered anyone with the same open, engaging manner. Because he is a real person, I won't share his details here, but let me just condense the story to what made all the difference:

At a teenager, he was headed down a destructive path.

He got into some trouble, and was given some community service work as punishment. This was handed down by a judge who felt he needed to learn a lesson, but couldn't give him anything harsher, due to the particular circumstances of a situation which resulted in someone's death.

His mentor, who owned the business where he was assigned to work, taught him everything he needed to know about his job, and gave him a chance to really spread his wings and try everything he wanted to do to improve the business. He was incredibly successful in his tasks (large and small), eventually ran that business, and started others of his own, and is now EXTREMELY successful. He still listens, studies, collaborates, and looks for opportunities. This guy is a winner.

A path similar to this one is in the book "Gifted Hands", which is the biography of the surgeon Ben Carson. So great to hear great stories! I will never forget that one!

The moral for me that day, was just ask open-ended questions, and just listen. You never know!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The butterfly effect

(Originally published 9/11/09)


"The ancients regarded the butterfly as so perfect an emblem of the soul that in Greece the word "Psyche," which properly means the human soul, was used also to signify a butterfly."

Day Entertainments and Other Functions (Butterick Publishing Company, 1896)

On this day, September 11, 2008, I am ressurecting this post from last August. I am seeing the effect of tiny gestures... little changes... and how there is a fascinating ripple effect created every time we perform even the simplest duties. Mine will be making my daughter's favorite mac and cheese tonight. Hoping you will "flap your wings" today, too....

The "butterfly effect" refers to the idea that a butterfly's wings influence tiny changes that may eventually change the weather in significant ways. The idea that one butterfly could have such a profound ripple effect on subsequent events is introduced in a 1952 short story by Ray Bradbury. Scientists later developed a theory, hypothesizing that one flap of a butterfly's wings could change the course of weather forever.

One step further: what about the "butterfly effect" of the soul/heart/hands? Inspired creations -- do they create ripples in the human atmosphere, causing changes all around us?

I believe they do. Last year, a gentleman called me with an unusual request. His brother-in-law had recently passed away, and he wanted to send me some of his brother-in-law's favorite shirts, for me to cut apart and use to make teddy bears for his widow and children. I made them, using the words and tags that were symbols of his personality, and his sister-in-law received them as a gift, and wrote me a note of appreciation. She belonged to a widows' bereavement group, where she mentioned the gift she received. Another member of the group contacted me to create bears for her sons and mother-in-law. I made them ,and received a very sweet note from her family as well.



If the "flapping of a wing" could be compared to the simple gesture of the brother, trying to give a meaningful gift to his sister-in-law, and all the bears this act generated are kept by children and grandchildren, and stories are shared about the loved ones they lost, and interest is sparked about who they were and what they stood for, and...

Well, you get the idea.

A woman recently shared a beautiful story with me about a childhood butterfly encounter near her home in the Philippines. As she walked barefoot in the grass one day, she stopped and stared at a beautiful butterfly, as it circled her, and then slowly flew down toward the ground. When it landed, it poised itself on the head of a snake, dangerously close to her bare foot. She felt the butterfly was an angel, protecting her from the snake. She ran away, and was not harmed. Now, this same woman is my son's physical therapist. She told me this story when a butterfly flew past them during a recent session in our backyard.

We all have our butterflies, our messages from the other side, our "burning bushes". The effect is as far-reaching as it is mysterious. A beautiful book by Alice Walker comes to mind. Creativity abounds in this literary masterpiece. I am the first to admit, it isn't for everyone, but do take a taste of it, in the library at least... It begins, "In the old country in South America, Carlotta's grandmother, Zede, had been a seamstress, but really more of a sewing magician..."

I offer this sensual passage, also from the book quoted at the beginning of this post, with suggestions for hosting a butterfly luncheon. I also encourage you to flap your wings today, for the benefit of all humankind.

"At the place of each guest was a little "bonboniere" of yellow satin, upon which was poised a large butterfly, trembling on its wire as though just about to take flight.. No two were alike, and each guest claimed to have been favored in the one assigned to her, as across the wings in quaint gilt lettering and in zigzag lines she read her own name."

Apologies...

It seems everywhere I go lately, I run into women who are, like me, busily hurrying along, trying to get it all done in a day, when she does something as normal as opens a door, sees me on the other side, and abruptly apologizes. No, she hasn't slammed it into me, she hasn't opened the wrong door, knocked a tray of hot food into my face, neglected to "wait her turn", or any infraction at all, yet she apologizes. Why? No man does this. Something is happening to women, that I am constantly seeing women apologize for everything. Running into an elevator whose doors are about to shut, realizing that I have been waiting for the stall they are leaving n the restroom.. pushing themselves out of the way... why is this happening?

And so, since it seems I always circle back to the same point, I submit the text of a blog post written by me many moons ago, on the very same topic. (Originally written 1/24/08)




I'm seeing a trend in blogging lately, that disturbs me greatly. We bloggers, (women bloggers exclusively, it seems) are apologizing for things that require no apology. Why is this happening? I am seeing apologies for mussed hair, dark circles under eyes, crooked stitches, slightly imperfect photographs, messy studios, slow posting, unfinished projects...

I made most of the above jacket a few years ago (this photo was taken while it was in progress), when I thought I was going to love purple forever. Now, I REALLY hate it, but the fabric was quite expensive, so I hold on to it, thinking maybe someday... well...let's get real... This will likely remain in my nearly completed stash until I can transform it into something I will like for a long time. Who knows how long that will be... a poorly conceived project... sometimes that happens... even when you're $250 into materials for the project. Yeah, oh well.

I see many very professional, well-produced blogs as well... which are great -- don't get me wrong... But we all know how much time a person needs to dedicate to create a "perfect" post, with great photographs, masquerading as something casually dashed-off while sipping your morning coffee.

Isn't the beauty of life in its imperfection? Isn't life messy and unpredictable? Let's celebrate that. Isn't the person you love the most absolutely breath-taking when he/she first wakes up in the morning? Isn't your favorite sweatshirt threadbare in just the "right" places?

Isn't that what life is all about?

In this high-tech, highly-polished environment, super-glossy and over-produced, don't we all read blogs to engage and indulge our inner voyeur with real people leading real lives? People to whom we can relate? Really, who would trade their mother's famous chili (or insert your loved one's specialty here...) over the finest restaurant meal money can buy?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Not extra

I spent some time on some style blogs today, watching the self-absorbed ramblings of a bunch of seemingly borderline insane people talk about their tatty, eclectic wardrobes... I got annoyed.

Then I changed my mind.

They were showing off their own individual favorite pieces and obsessions, admiring themselves, preening, telling the stories that define who they are, creating their own characters. Confidently. Unapologetically. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

I thought about the shopping experience at so many stores in NYC right now. Racks and racks of watered-down, identical pieces. A sea of sameness. I looked around in a ghost town of a department store this weekend, and felt suffocated by piles of similar garments. A wave of sadness and pessimism passed over me, and I decided that there was no reason for me to make another single article of clothing again. Ever. The market for all clothing, ready-to-wear or not, is fully saturated.

Then I changed my mind.

Because... I know what isn't on those racks. I know what I want. It isn't there. Right now, I am head-over-over-heels in love with a dress that only exists in my head, that I am determined to make. And when I do, it won't be "excess", because I am not an "extra" person. My point of view, my art, and my aesthetic are as valid as anyone else's. And so are yours. The piles of crappy clothing in the stores are the "excess" and "extra" we don't need. If we don't buy it, it simply won't be bought. The end.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Technique

My grandmother was not known for her cooking, but my mother raves about her fried corn. It has something to do with the "cream style cutting of the corn" from the cob, and frying it up in bacon drippings in a cast iron skillet. Nope. Not health food. But she simply perfected the technique.

"Anyone who cooks knows that ten people can make the same dish, following the same measurements, and it'll be a little different, with the one who has the best feeling for what she's doin' getting the best results."

Princess Pamela's Soul Food Cookbook (1969)

Good luck finding a copy of that book. Anyone who wants it will have to pry it out of my cold, dead hands, since it contains the absolute best peach cobbler recipe on the planet...

Nowadays, I see an endless flow of recipes, how-to's, sewing tutorials, and other projects. They're everywhere. A trend I've been noticing lately, is there is so much emphasis on ONE project, on ONE recipe, but not on the TECHNIQUES that will help you to make it, expand it, change it to suit your tastes, and make it your own. Sometimes a new sewer will contact me for instruction, saying something like, "I want to learn how to make a pillow." Yes, I get it, but if you know how to insert piping, make a stuffed shape, maybe insert a zipper, sew piping into a seam, or better yet, make your own piping, you can take your pillow projects to a whole new level. It can also change the way you think, and add a creative dimension to your planning that is exciting and new to you.

A prime example:


I did not know you could sew leather by hand, and end up with something beautiful and handmade (not home-made looking). Armed with the proper techniques, so many new options are within my grasp...

Trial of the Century (Revised)

My great-grandfather, who is the father of my paternal grandmother, was born in 1895 in the same Hot-As-Heck dismal place in North Carolina as my grandmother was born, and eventually my father. (Although my Dad made a run for it at the age of 16, and never returned.) My grandfather's profession, based on information from Ancestry.com, was "farmer".

Uh-huh...

Born at a time when birth certificates weren't necessarily issued for Black Americans, he managed to carve out quite a career for himself. He had five children, a wife, and LOTS of land. Nearly 250 acres at his death. None of his children ever had to buy land of their own; they simply built their homes on the land he owned. Large enough to farm, but there was no farming going on. The prevailing rumor (the one I choose to believe), is that he was a bootlegger, and whatever other activities would gain him some cash and kind treatment from a town that didn't welcome his "kind". The town had a lynching tree. Interesting that everyone knew that, especially considering that for a long time, there were only one or two families in the town who would have been candidates for it.

I always imagined this place as a very tense, hostile kind of environment for the family, and I imagine that there probably weren't close personal friendships formed between them and the neighbors. Dating was impossible; you had to leave town to find a mate, especially since you risked being the first casualty on that tree if you pursued romance outside of your race.

So, you understand, as the family grew, and the children had children of their own, they spread out across the United States. Most of the original set of kids stayed and grew old in North Carolina, but the grandkids went north, west, and east. Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles were popular destinations among them.

When you grow up in a town with a lynching tree, it is tough to undo the ideas you have about racism and how you are perceived. One of those grandkids moved to Los Angeles, and, oddly enough, was called to jury duty in LA in the mid-90's. She served as a juror in "The Trial of the Century." Yes, THAT one. Seriously. And we know how that turned out...

So, I'm particularly struck by the text of these pages in an old craft/etiquette/idea book of mine, written around the time of my great-grandfather's birth. Despite the language, it gives a glimpse of what race relations may have been like then, and how there was a certain fascination from the point of view of the author, that reminds me of the way the Grinch watches the "Who"s in Whoville celebrate Christmas with no presents. Note: no comparison intended between the Grinch and white people...

(Taken from Day Entertainments and Other Functions - Metropolitan Handy Series September, 1896)

This passage is about the Easter celebration, from the point of view of the (white) author.

"The little negroes, attired in the the latest styles...wend their ways to Sabbath schools, where they are to repeat verses in public... The children have brought from the woods loads of pink honeysuckle, yellow jasmine and wild laurel, so that the rude walls enclose a measure of sweetness and beauty not to be attained in the city cathedral at many times the cost, and it is safe to presume that the songs assiduously practiced for a week or more are sure to out-distance, in the literal acceptance of the word, any vocal efforts of a surpliced choir.... Singing, paying and preaching go on intermittently the rest of the day and nightfall witnesses the climax of the festival, when Easter becomes a veritable Candlemas... Everybody participates - the venerable, long coated elders, the fat cooks, swagger dining-room boys, house-maids gayly flirtatious, and children by scores, each and every one holding a candle in inverse ratio to the bearer's stature. All other lights are out and the candle beams waver weirdly upon intent, dark faces, as the procession moves along the aisles to the rhythm of of some rich far-sounding chant, such as we may hear only in the south from the lungs of a lusty negro congregation."

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Whatever happened to...

Originally posted 12/15/07... and what strange timing, for reasons I'll explain later,

A good ol' housedress for the very elderly?

You know, arthritic hands, wanting to dress independently, velcro closure for the less agile, pockets for the obligatory tissue...

Well, I guess I was imagining something more... Ruby Dee...



And less... Mrs. Roper.



My grandmother has been in an Altzheimer like state since I was little, and is now nearly blind and doesn't really talk anymore.



I brought a video camera with me on my last visit to see her, and she wanted to play with it, looking at herself on the screen... she found it fascinating...

She has no idea who I am, but she is very clear on who my father is, and does not understand/know he is dead... so, when I check on her or send her something, I just do it in my Dad's name.

Her nurse once asked me if she sewed...

I don't know the answer to this. It never came up.

She's in perfect physical health, but in hospice care, due to her advanced age and mental state.

I had only been to her home (my Dad's childhood home) in a southern town which shall remain nameless, lest I offend any readers, ONCE. It was such an uncomfortable experience for me, that I VOWED never to go back... And, I have never felt such HOT weather in my life! By now, the place may have changed, since that was about 15 years ago -- but then, it was the kind of place where you walk into the local restaurant, and the whole place would turn silently toward you, conversation would cease, as if to say... "What are YOU doing here?" There is one race in that town, apparently... and I'm pretty darn sure they'd like to keep it that way. My grandmother's neighborhood was more than happy to see her move out. I heard her neighbors had been working on ways to remove her for some time...

Anyway, at that house, there were two beautiful pieces of machinery... an old sewing machine, which I gushed over the moment I arrived, and a lovely baby grand piano. I couldn't hold a conversation with her even then, so I don't know if the sewing machine was hers, or had been passed down to her by my great-grandmother. No one seems to know, and now, no one seems to know where it went.

Anyway, when she sits quietly, she simulates a sewing motion.

I know that the only path to communication with her now is touch, so I figured sending her something textural for Christmas would be a comfort to her. She's 94 now.

So, she has always been a bit of a fashion plate, so I figured a fun housedress would be great. I figured I'd buy one, and then knit or crochet appliques for it, to give it texture, so she could run her fingers across it, and sense that someone had added something to this garment just for her.

Guess what?

No suitable housedresses to be found. One would think maybe PajamaGram or a special needs or medical apparel company, or some version of specialty place would have them, right? Guess not.

Guess I'll need to make it myself. Luckily, I still have this pattern, which makes it easier than drafting one...



Here are the fabrics I am thinking of using. Maybe I'll make two.







Any votes on which two fabrics I should use?

Note: About three weeks after writing this post, and deciding to give my grandmother the first gift I ever would have given her, she passed away peacefully in her sleep.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Trial by Fire (and Error)

Sometimes, despite your best intentions, things can go horribly wrong. Failed relationships, disappointments... make you wanna "make lemonade". That lemonade isn't always as sweet as you'd hoped.

On that particularly dismal trip to Hot-As-Heck, NC in the summer when I was 16, my mom distracted "my grandmother" (my own awkward name for her, since it never rolled off my tongue to call her "Grandma", or anything like that.) outside for a bit, my Dad pushed aside a large dresser to reveal a door in the front room that lead deeper into the house. Behind the dresser, in neatly appointed rooms covered by a thick layer of dust, lay the year 1965 or so. Furniture in conversational positions, and a lovely baby grand piano, showing signs that a real life had been lived here. Organized and bright, these lonely rooms had been untouched for at least a decade, I suspected. And the "kid's" rooms (my Dad and his brother) were just as they left them even longer ago. At times, my grandmother talked about her "kids" as if they were still boys, and her husband (my grandfather) who had died before I was born, as if he were still alive. My Dad showed me the rooms, whispering quietly, unemotionally, and factually about what each room represented for him. We tiptoed out, put the dresser back as it was, and pretended to be sitting quietly when she came back in.

Back to the present:

Wiped out after a dressmaking project that went wrong, I decided to work out my dissapointment with a personal project. Because I had used an expensive fabric from my personal stash (a luscious, black double silk organdy) as a lining to help "save" a dress that ultimately didn't work for a client, I decided to reclaim some of that fabric for a new dress, which I would name "Things we lost in the fire". My obsession with flame motifs led me to buy a lovely cotton emblazoned with a firey mix of reds and oranges, and apply it to a summer dress. Set against a smooth, jet-black cotton, I sketched and imagined until a creative frenzy sent me to the dress form to messily drape the design.



These approximate shapes gave me rough templates for cutting my pattern pieces...




I adjusted the pattern to my shape, cut the dress pieces, assembled the dress, and was pleased.



That is, until I put it on. Somehow, I had created what looked like a grandma's nightgown with flames. Hot flashes? Ode to menopause? Not what I was going for. Knowing I would never wear it, I resolved to find the version of this idea that I would/could wear. Okay, the silk organdy has no place on this dress, either. I wanted to place it as a bottom border, sorta giving the illusion that the fabric had been singed as the flames traveled up the dress. Okay, so I could see it in my head... but on the body? Just Terrible.



All of that to get to this. Black skirt, to be worn with a black tank and my favorite red wedge sandals.




Now, if only I had a tattoo...





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Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Tree

I have a Sequoia theory, which is my own interpretation of a scientific fact I once heard, but have never again seen in any book anywhere... It resounded so deeply within me, that I keep it in my heart, carry it with me, and deeply believe it. Someone said (well, maybe it was a dream, ?, but I heard it loud and clear), that although Sequoias seem to be free-standing individual trees, when you study a group of them all together, they appear to be one organism, with a shared root structure. Dig down, and you can't see where one tree ends and another begins. They are endlessly intertwined and tangled together. I think families are the same way. Every member may grow on his/her own...some thrive, some wither, some in the sun, and some in the shade, but they all connect, and are indispensable in the life chain, and to each other.

"Hi, my grandmother is a resident on your floor, and, I know she won't know me if I ask to speak to her... I'm just checking in on her. How is she doing?" I would call her senior residence every once in a while to find out if she needed anything.

"Oh, what a sweet lady!" (I think the nurse was lying, but I'll never know for sure.) "Sure, she doesn't talk anymore now, and we're not sure if she can see, but she's comfortable, and I've noticed she moves her hands a lot. Did she sew? It kinda looks like she's sewing."

I used to hate the state of North Carolina. Somehow "hate" doesn't seem a strong enough word. I really thought it was absolutely the devil's very armpit. I was about 16 years old on my first trip there, on a spur-of-the-moment trip with my parents to see my grandmother. She was a woman I didn't understand. I only got to "meet" her after her death, and now, finally, it all makes sense.

I wish everyone could get an opportunity to have a "full circle" experience like mine, which will probably take a few posts to explain... but my father never mentioned her... EVER. I mean, we were aware that she existed, of course, but kinda silently agreed that we all suspected some huge scandalous backstory that we didn't want to hear. It may seem strange that a person would never have ANY stories to share about his mother, and that he only sent money, checked in with others regarding her welfare, and only reluctantly called her to say "Happy Birthday" or "Merry Christmas", never forced us kids to get on the phone with her, never pestered us to send cards or acknowledge her in any way... But, what is even stranger, is an outta-the-blue announcement that we would be going to visit her.

So she lived in a ridiculously little town near Charlotte, NC. Well, not near... but there's no other way to identify it. It was mid-summer, and so brutally hot I thought I would absolutely fry. My Grandmother's family (funny how I don't refer to them as my Dad's family) was, for far too long, one of the only African American families in that town, and BOY, could you tell when you got there. In what seemed a relatively affluent neighborhood, my grandmother occupied a very large lot, and lived in, what appeared to me (or to anyone, really), absolute squalor. Was that a house, a shack, or what? Someone had been regularly clearing the weeds and trees, I could tell. This little lady came out to greet us, and her face brightened. I didn't want to go in. I didn't want to stay. She hugged my dad, my mom, and then me, staring at me in amazement, saying "You look just like me!" Geesh, I hoped not. She wasn't bad looking, and in great physical shape, but she must have been about 80 then. So you know what I mean.

We sat down in the front room, which seemed to be her bedroom, living room and parlour, all rolled into one. A huge photograph of what looked like some random native american (I would later learn it was my paternal grandfather), a very old, beautiful sewing machine, a pot-belly stove (seriously), her bed, and other random stuff. We talked in polite, circular conversations for what felt like an eternity. She would disappear in her thoughts, forget who we were, and need to be reminded. She would occasionally glance at me, brighten, and shout "Oh, you look just like me!" The surly teenager in me would repeatedly respond, "I'm your granddaughter" over and over again. This was news to her every time I said it. And she kept looking at my legs, repaeating "Pretty little legs!" happily. There were several doors to this room, but it wasn't until she was distracted for a bit outside, that I got to see the world they were hiding.

My dad got up and explored the kitchen. As long as I live, I will never forget what we saw when we opened it for the first time. I know people eat squirrels, but she had caught them herself, and stored them in the fridge, fur on... Yeesh. In retrospect, I think this trip must have been for my dad to verify for himself that she couldn't live alone. The kitchen was tidy, but showed no sign of an awareness of sanitary storage procedures or food safety issues. This may have inspired my deep love for beautiful kitchens and knitted dishcloths. Just the greatest symbols of nurturing and love, which were absent in this place.

This is a page from Needle Craft: Artistic and Practical, published by Butterick Publishing Company, Ltd. 1889.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The all-consuming, burdensome schedule and loss of mojo crisis!

Note: I do not want to try to disguise that this post is nearly completely stolen from "Seth's Blog", one of my favorite business "philosophers", who writes beautifully accurate, honest, succinct posts that inspire...

A shortcut to client and dressmaker intimacy is to respond in real time. A phone call is more human than an email, a personal meeting has more impact than a letter.

When you do your work on someone else's schedule, your productivity suffers, because you are responding to the urgent, not the important, and your rhythm is shot. How many times have you tried to finish a hem in record time, sacrificing quality and your own feelings of joy and peace in the process?

Think on this: How important it is that your interactions be intimate? If it's not vitally important that you increase the energy and realism of the relationship, then insert a buffer. Build blocks of time to do serious work, work that's not interrupted by people who need to hear from you in real time, right now (like your children, your mother-in-law... you get the picture).

On the other hand, for interactions when only a hug or a smile will do, take the time and choose to be present.

Confusing the two is getting easier than ever, and it's killing your ability to do great work. So if you have a sewing area, shut the door, make a sign, and announce your schedule. If it is important to you, it should be important to those who love you, too.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The learning curve

Some of my design-room tools...


To make a garment fit correctly, the designer has to respect all of the angles, hollows, and protrusions of the human form. There are no straight lines on the body. You can certainly wear a shapelss garment, but only the personality the fabric and trims lend to it can make up for the areas where you have extra (or not enough) room.

No matter how hard I try, I cannot shorten the learning curve. I wish I could have. Years of sewing, designing, redesigning, making mistakes and redoing lots of projects have made me a better designer. After 20 years, I am finally reaching a point where my hands can create what my mind sees...

I follow a kaizen-like philosophy. What is kaizen? Well, there's a fabulous book I read recently on the topic, and it basically is a philosophy of taking small steps to achieve results. And an excellent article I read by a fashion industry researcher/philosopher (for lack of a better term) in her popular blog...

Help Wanted

(Originally posted March 11/09)

For immediate release:

Help desperately needed at a well-established, rock-solid firm. An honest day's work equals an honest salary, sufficient to feed and clothe your family. The ideal candidate will be able to manage his/her own schedule and workload autonomously, completing projects ahead of or on schedule. Telecommuting when no meetings are scheduled is okay. Because a proper diet and excercise are vital to optimal work performance, the employer will provide cash incentives for regular use of the on-site gym and cafeteria. Occasional overtime may be expected, but is not required. Employer will provide all necessary training, and new courses will be given as technology advances, and trends change. You will be consulted on matters affecting your job performance, the health of our company, and opportunities for advancement. While no one is expected to remain in any one job forever, you may feel free to retire from this position, should your job perfomance remain consistently beneficial to the company. Your coworkers will be your real-world friends, and you will celebrate marriages, births, graduations, and other triumphs and setbacks side-by-side. When you take a vacation, your coworkers will pick up the slack, and you will return to a clean desk in your office, refreshed and renewed. You will use your education here, and sentences that begin with "My Economics professor used to say..." won't get you laughed out of the room. You will have modern, smoothly functioning equipment to complete your work in the most efficient manner possible. Slapping the copier three times will not be considered a remedy. Completing a project early earns you the right to leave the office early. We will help you budget and plan for retirement, your childrens' college education, and regular vacations. Our health and dental plans are easy to understand and paperless. Apply today, tomorrow, or whenever you're ready.


Well, I don't need to tell you that this job doesn't exist. I have long been a fan of Warren Buffet's wisdom, and to hear him say "The best investment you can make is in yourself. Cultivate your own talents, and you will have a value in the marketplace." resonates with me at a time like this. As I see people lose their jobs and their companies fail, I see more clearly that there are truly other forms of currency.

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I've come full circle on sewing with patterns

There was a time, about 18 years ago, in fits of frustration, I was convinced that I would rather drape and draft my own patterns than sew with a commercial pattern at all. Frustrated by huge Amazonian shoulders, gaping necklines, having to rearrange the proportions of absolutely every pattern to fit my frame and design aesthetic, I decided that it just wasn't worth the trouble.

I have since changed my mind. Finally, after years of sewing, I now know enough about patternmaking and fitting a body, that I can take a quality commercial pattern and "fix" it, both visually, and mathematically, to get the right result.

Years ago, I would have needed to make muslins of everything to be so sure something would fit. Nowadays, the questions I have to tackle have to do with whether I will actually like it once made. My mistakes have more to do with fabric choices and th vision not agreeing with reality. As much as I would love for my mind's eye to be able to see exactly what the result will be, I'm not so sure that's possible... And, after watching "The Last Emperor" last week, I can see that even the best designers are making educated guesses until they "find" the end result they desire.

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The 4AM cry...

Whenever I get into conversations with other self-employed artist types, we discusss agonizing over projects, working so hard to force materials to conform to our vision, thinking and working so hard we can barely see or stand, and pulling all-nighters just to allow our minds and bodies to rest. That often brings up the subject of the the universal 4AM "cry".

And, without fail, I get a wide-eyed response of "You too???" This seems to be something almost all of us have in common. That soul-wrenching, supposedly private cry you have when you decide that you are a hack, a failure, talentless... untill you breathe life into the project, and, for better or worse, it starts to "become".

I think the creative process is very much like giving birth, and when it works, the glorious, euphoric high it produces is better than almost any feeling you could ever have. But the road is painful, sometimes long, and extremely emotional.

So, if you know this experience, at your next 4AM cry, know that you are not alone. If you are stuck, you can get "unstuck", if you are blocked, you can clear it, and you can (you will, and you must) overcome it. This is part of the process. If it is 4AM for you right now, I won't tell you to go to bed, because I know even I wouldn't take my own advice on that one!




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A Room of One's Own

(originally posted November 29, 2007)


I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.

-Virginia Woolf


They say a picture is worth a thousand words...

Today's message goes out to Mimi, Summerset, Dawn, Adrienne, and all others within reach of my "voice".

Over the past few weeks, I have been haunted by the question, "Why blog?"

I started writing entries simply to combat the frustration I felt over not being free to leave the house, socialize and have grown-up time when I wanted to...

The triple-whammy of my difficult pregnancy with our toddler daughter to care for, followed by my son's serious birth defect and neuro-surgery, followed by an incredibly tight and grueling therapy schedule have left me very little "me time". So I started writing this blog. What I have found to be far more valuable than the catharsis the blog has given me, is the absolute joy of reading the blogs of others...

So it seems, I have found a "community". I was inspired to say this today, as this realisation is hitting me.

When I read your blogs, I "hear" you. I hear the love you all have for your children, (whether they are small or big)and the absolute passion you all share for expressing yourself through your words and creative fingers. I am learning so much through you. Today, I want to celebrate that!

Just so you know, since this online life can be isolating, there is someone eagerly awaiting your next posts, even when I don't comment!

So, why the picture and quote?

Well, when my sister was little, she painted this image of my mother at the sewing machine. It was the 60's, so you can see the color choice was very "of the moment", and the roundness of my Mom's afro is a great fashion statement, isn't it?

Notice my Mom's back to her - she is absolutely in her own world. And happily so. Even at my sister's tender age, she could appreciate that my mother had her own passion, and my sister took the opportunity at that time, to explore her own creativity.

At the time, anyone would have said, "What a cute picture of your Mom at the sewing machine!" But the picture expresses so much more than that. It is not about feeling "left out" of my Mom's creative world, it was encouragement and permission to find her own creative space.

As a Mom, finding your own space, your own moment to just create and really be who you are, is so important. And letting your children know that you are entitled to that space, and having them respect it, is vital. Well, husbands too, but mine doesn't give me any conflict about my sewing. I am still carving out my own time, slowly but surely, since I have discovered that I truly cannot live (and be pleasant, ha!) without it.

The past few days, however, I have been in gourmet mode, stocking our kitchen with homemade-from-scratch goodies. I am well-fed and rested... and on a bit of a sewing binge between Aaron's therapies... the results of which will soon be revealed on this blog.

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

So I was on TV in Japan...

In front of an audience, which I believe, is bigger than Oprah's, I did a quickie change on a shirt from "nerdy" to "cool"! The show's producer wanted to tell the story of what he sees as a Vintage Movement in clothing right now, but I see it as more of an aesthetic revolution. People want special things, made of special fabrics that can endure the normal challenges of movement and laundering without looking like a rag. For the creative, this is a necessity. If you are reading this on a wi-fi only Kindle right now, go find a desktop, laptop, tablet or phone to watch it HERE. (Hope you speak Japanese! If not, you'll just have to wait for me or my client to speak. The rest will just be funny!)

Monday, July 11, 2011

Frankenstitch

A word to add to your fabric lexicon... "Frankenstitch"

I did not create this word. I stole it from Albedo Design Journal (I can't remember which post, but it was recent). But I do love this word, and think it deserves a place in the sewing vernacular.

Just yesterday, I put on a jacket I made a few years ago, and vaguely remembered ripping the shoulder pads out one day when I caught a glimpse of just how huge my shoulders looked in it... and I know I sewed it up again hastily at some point after that, but couldn't find my own Frankenstitching.

I made a dress for a client this summer, and forgot to remove some basting from one of the appliques before her final try-on, and she pointed to it, eyebrows raised, as if to say "What is this Frankenstitch I'm looking at?"

This word also maks me think of that famous Marilyn Monroe gown, in which she sang "Happy Birthday, Mr. President..." (need I say more) and was rumored to have been sewn into to make it fit so snugly. If done just prior to the event, imagine the Frankenstitching there!

We've all done it, haven't we?

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Saturday, July 09, 2011

When $9 changes everything...


(Originally published 10/19/09)

A repeat client came to me with a bridesmaid dress that, while perfectly acceptable as a lone dress on a hanger, was outrageously unflattering on her. Luckily, the bride had given her carte blanche to have changes made, as long as she stayed within the color boundaries.

So, after altering the dress to fit her body, we added the optional straps, and I felt compelled to decorate the blank bust area, since the fabric was impossibly thick and unforgiving, yeilding a sort of tight, wrinkled-armour look that I just couldn't live with.

Like, it was bad enough that if someone were to ask who altered her gown, I would consider PAYING her not to respond...

Well, lo and behold, I found a delightful trim in the garment district for about $4.50/yd. I bought two yards, and wound it into a flower effect, and that just took the dress in another direction entirely. I was happy, and so was everyone else! I felt great, and it was quick and easy.

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